Bay-to-Beach Life Blog

Birder or not?

I’ve never thought of myself as a birder. I don’t go looking for birds specifically when I kayak or walk the bay. I’m more of a wildlife-watcher who sees birds. They are fascinating and I see a fair share (according to Don Roberson’s Monterey Birds book there are 482 bird species in the Monterey Bay area). I’m entertained by busily nesting cormorants. I’ve chuckled at the bright clown feet of pigeon guillemots. Great Egret by C. ParsonsI admire the zenlike focus of a great egret fishing on an undulating kelp canopy. But I’ve never considered myself a birder. However, this blog is a confession. I’m becoming one.

I decided to learn more about my local birds (an interest but serious weakness) and signed up for a bird-watching class with Brian Weed through the Pacific Grove Adult School. We meet once a week. Most of my classmates are well-seasoned birders and they’ve been very nice and patient with me (especially with identifying little brown birds — it is winter!).

I recently learned that as a non-birder, I’m in a minority group. According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (which includes wildlife- and bird-watching), 71.8 million people in the U.S. last year spent time watching wildlife and “birds attracted the biggest following” — about 46.7 million people over 16 years of age. (That’s a lot of people.) What I found even more amazing was that wildlife-watchers (including birders) spent about 55 billion U.S. dollars (yes, billions) to watch wildlife — for everything from food and plants at home to equipment, meals and lodging for trips away from home.

After last week’s birding class, I understand why. Our group was standing along the shoreline identifying what we could see. PG Coast by C. ParsonsThere were pelagic cormorants flying by, Brandt’s cormorants and Western gulls on the rocks, a pair of red-breasted mergansers  in the water with a few small grebes (eared or pied-billed — I know, they’re different). Our teacher, Brian, mentioned that the trees behind us usually host a peregrine falcon, but it wasn’t there. (For those of you who don’t know, peregrines hunt birds, which was what we were watching.) Then Brian spotted the falcon flying toward us. I was thrilled. The magnificent bird flew directly over us, and I have to admit that my binoculars were glued on him/her during the entire brief pass. [One study calculated a peregrine dive at 238 mph, (383 km/h), but cruise speed is more like 25 to 35 mph (40 to 56 km/h)].

This sighting is precious given our history with this species (as well as pelicans and others). Peregrine falcons were gone from our skies by 1970 due to the use of the pesticide DDT, which weakened egg shells. The 1972 ban on the use of DDT in the U.S., along with reintroductions of peregrines, especially in cities where they eat pigeons, have resulted in an amazing comeback. In 1999, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed the species from the Endangered and Threatened Species List; in 2009, California removed it from the state endangered species list.

When the peregrine we were watching got close to the water, a group of gulls starting mobbing it (a bird harassment tactic). The falcon mostly ignored them and kept circling over the shallow wave wash between offshore rocks and the shoreline. Brian explained that typical peregrine hunting behavior is to circle multiple times over potential prey until the angle and time are right. We were mesmerized. Then boom. In an instant, the peregrine dropped onto the water and lifted off with a little grebe. We were stunned, thrilled and a bit sad (for the grebe). With its catch, the peregrine flew into trees beyond our view. Our lovely morning birding walk had turned dramatic, and this was just the first 10 minutes of class! (For some amazing photos of peregrines catching shorebirds, visit Will James Sooter’s website, but not if you love shorebirds.)

For the next two hours we identified about 25 different seabird and shorebird species, some locals and many migrants. I got to see five different species of gull on one rock so that I could compare and contrast them (one of my goals is to learn my gulls).

I had always been a bit dismissive of birders with binoculars, making notes on life lists, and blocking my walking path. No more. I now have a great appreciation for what birding is all about — and I’m hooked.

A Few Annual Birding Events (by dates)
RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, England, Jan. 26 & 27 (this weekend)
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), U.S. & Canada, Feb. 15 – 18
Monterey Bay Birding Festival held in September
Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) held in December/January
Birdwatching Magazine Calendar of Events
2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Peregrine falcon
Don Roberson’s Creagrus (general bird information) and Monterey County Bird Checklist (with photos)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Seabirds & Shorebirds
Avifauna of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS)
The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group: Research Info & Falcon Nestcams

Heaven on the bay

Beneath rough-hewn wharf ~ over sandy shallows ~ wee bell jellies hunt

This week kayaking has been great — high pressure has brought clear blue skies, light winds, gently rolling swells and warm daytime temperatures (although the clear nights make for freezing mornings). Clear Day by C.ParsonsAt launch,
the air temperature has been around 40° F (4° C) and the water temperature is 51° F (10.5° C). By mooring, the air temperature is close to 70° F (21° C).

But today was the stand out. With no wind for a week, the water was glassy calm and the views above and below were incredibly clear. Today was a perfect must-paddle day.

Not 10 strokes off Del Monte Beach (I stow my boat at Monterey Bay Kayaks), I came upon a creature that I’ve never seen before. It was so ethereal that I thought at first I was seeing pieces of something drifting, maybe paper or plastic. But after spotting several,
I realized they were real living things. Bell jelly by C.ParsonsFloating past me were tiny, delicate, transparent animals called bell jellies (Polyorchis sp.). I’ve since learned that bell jellies live along our coast in bays and harbors near the bottom where they use their many tentacles to sting and capture crustaceans (shrimps, etc.). How something so delicate-looking can survive in the ocean is amazing.

After the bell jellies came the big show —
a swarm of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sea nettles (Chrysaora sp.). The pulsating large and small golden-brown animals stretched from the end of Wharf 2 (the commercial wharf) across the open mouth of the harbor to around both sides of the breakwater. Sea Nettles by C.ParsonsThey were everywhere, like the jellyfish scene in Finding Nemo. Looking down (this shot is of the water under me), they’re beautiful and graceful. But I’m aware they sting and am happy where I am. As I kept paddling, I noted no sea lion raft that’s typically at the end of the breakwater.
Any wonder why? (For more about Monterey Bay jellies, visit my bestiary.)

Rounding the breakwater and gliding into the kelp beds along Cannery Row was breathtaking — Smooth Ride by C.Parsonsso calm that I just sat for a long time taking in the scene. This was one of those days when I felt that I could kayak the 20 miles (32 km) across the bay to Santa Cruz. It was so placid.

Kelp canopy regulars — seabirds, sea otters and harbor seals — were hardly noticeable today.
It was all about the water.

The ocean’s deep color and soft texture evoked a feeling of calm true to its name — Pacific.

Freezing fingers riding the tide

I don’t kayak much in January — it’s often stormy, windy, wet and cold. But despite this week’s freezing overnight temperatures (had to clear ice from inside my kayak before launching in the morning), conditions have been perfect: sunny skies, small swells and light winds. I’ve been on the water three times this week. First, the slough.

Saturday was ride-the-tide at Elkhorn Slough. If you don’t know the slough, it’s an estuary midway along the Monterey Bay coastline (at Moss Landing). It’s the second largest tract of tidal marsh in California; San Francisco Bay is the largest. The slough, pronounced slew, is a nearly 7-mile (11-km) channel with associated aquatic and terrestrial habitats. In short, it’s a beautiful, life-rich place to visit.

For the ride I joined my long-time friend Ava and some of her friends — about a dozen of us, guided by David from Kayak Connection. We launched at Kirby Park (about 4.5 miles, or 7.2 km, up the slough) after noon on the ebbing tide (a 6.3-feet or 1.9-m high tide was at 10 a.m.), which carried us toward the mouth of the slough at a pretty good clip. For the first hour or so of the ride it was sunny and calm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the water receded, the mudflats were exposed. The shorebirds’ focus on feeding allowed us to gawk at diving Forster’s terns, fishing herons and egrets, probing godwits, plucking avocets, squirting clams, and circling flocks of sandpipers.

While enjoying what seemed like a rare, vibrant, minimally disturbed environment, our guide shared stories about the dramatic changes to the slough since the Ohlone people settled here thousands of years ago. What we were seeing was nothing compared to what was. And even now, though much of the slough is protected and carefully watched over, it’s losing ground from tidal erosion and threatened by invasive non-native species, pollution and future sea level rise.
Our footprints are everywhere.

About two hours into the ride, near Seal Bend, the wind picked up, blowing in off the chilly ocean, and my fingers turned numb — a reminder that it’s January. We paddled (instead of drifted) past sea otters diving and dining, sea lions crowded on a dock, and harbor seals snoozing on a sand bank near hundreds of resting seabirds (mostly gulls). We quickly disembarked to seek warmth, but were left with the glow of a great day.

Click on the links to find out more about threats to Elkhorn Slough and what you can do to help. If nothing else, visit — whether by paddle or by foot.

New year’s whales

Ploddingly slow swim ~ migrating female gray whales ~ going to give birth

To end the old year and ring in the new, I went whale-watching with my friend Nora (and a boatload of other people). It was a chilly, beautiful blue-sky day with light winds. This time of year pregnant gray whales migrate (rather rapidly) along our coast heading south to their calving grounds off Baja California. (In the spring the migrators are more leisurely, especially females with new calves.)

Credit: Laura Francis/Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

Credit: Laura Francis/
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

This annual whale trek is a wonderful excuse for getting out on Monterey Bay. Even though gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are seldom exciting, it’s fun to welcome them back and I never know what I’ll see given the bay’s topography of nearshore shelf in close proximity to deep canyons. It’s not unusual to spot comingling coastal and pelagic species.

Conditions were good for spotting misty whale blows (exhaled breaths) and it didn’t take long to find several small groups of grays. We joined a cooperative group of 3 or 4 adults (hard to count because they weren’t close together and didn’t all fluke-up — that ahhh tail-up moment whale-watchers love as a whale dives). Our group did, however, follow the typical gray-whale pattern of three or four blows followed by a 5-minute-or-so dive, then another series of blows followed by another dive. We stuck with them for nearly an hour as they trucked south. These grays appeared heftier than ones I’ve seen in the past, maybe due to impending births.

There have been two unusual sightings of gray whales in recent years. In May 2010 a gray whale was spotted twice in the Mediterranean, an odd occurrence because there haven’t been gray whales in the North Atlantic since the 1700s. According to the research paper, this animal was most likely a vagrant from our eastern North Pacific population. The researchers suggested that shrinking Arctic Sea ice due to climate change may allow gray whales to recolonize the Atlantic. Time will tell.

Back in the Pacific, in 2011, a western gray whale with a satellite-monitored radio-tag was tracked swimming from off Russia across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska to the coast of Oregon until the tag quit.  “Flex,” as he was named, surprised scientists. They didn’t think the western Pacific and eastern Pacific populations mixed. The western Pacific group is listed as endangered; the eastern Pacific group was recently delisted due to its remarkable recovery. The question now: Is there just one Pacific population? The research continues to answer the questions that arose from following Flex.

But back to my whale-watching. To explore more, we broke away from our grays and headed to the edge of the Monterey Canyon. We were soon fortunate to find and get into the middle of a group of hundreds of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) accompanied by Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). It’s exciting to watch Risso’s all around the boat (knowing that every splash is a dolphin). Grampus12-12We even found ourselves in a nursery group and could easily contrast the large adult dorsal fins with the little calf fins. At one point two separate Risso’s groups came together and the splashes calmed around us as they greeted one another. I could have stayed forever, but time was our enemy and our captain (reluctantly) turned the boat back toward shore.

On the way home we spied a few small harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). They’re so shy you usually see only splashes, but this threesome stayed on the surface long enough for us to view them, which was a rare treat. And I can’t omit the usual sightings (on our way out and back) of sea lions, sea otters, jellies and scores of birds.

My thanks to Monterey Bay Whale Watch, Nancy Black, Kristin and Isaiah (sorry if misspelled) for a great trip, and to Nora for sharing a great start to the new year.

Scheinin, A.P. et al. (2011). Gray whale ( Eschrichtius robustus) in the Mediterranean Sea: Anomalous event or early sign of climate-driven distribution change? Marine Biodiversity Records, 4, e28 doi:10.1017/S1755267211000042.
Oregon State University, Marine Mammal Institute, Whale Telemetry Group (WTG)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises)
Monterey Bay Whale Watch: Marine Mammal Sightings
Educator Guide to The Gray Whale Obstacle Course teaching materials

King tides

Waves thunder under ~ boardwalks and building pilings ~ a morning king tide

This week along the California coast we’re experiencing what’s commonly called a “king tide.” It’s an especially high seasonal (in this case winter) tide. We’re getting a 6-to-7-foot (about 2-meter) high tide each morning. High tides coupled with large swells make for some spectacular wave watching from shore or kayak, as I did earlier this week. The bay felt like a large sloshing bathtub.

WaveOnWallThere are efforts to get the public to document these high tides to show the potentially dangerous and destructive impact of sea level rise, which is predicted with climate change. Watching waves crash against buildings, wash up stairways, or over docks and breakwaters is sobering.

To see some of the photos that have been submitted or learn about how to get involved, visit the California King Tides Initiative. And if you’re out wave watching, keep a safe distance and your eyes always on the water.